December 4 – Wonder. How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year? (Author: Jeffrey Davis)

I think my wonder this year really centers itself on finishing my degree. It is within grasp; a year or less away, ideally. Once I finish this Ph.D., then what?

Editorial note: I apologize in advance for the slightly rambling nature near the end. I got out of venting mode and back into introspection mode

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The sciences are starting to feel the crunch of the economy, but in a slightly different means than one might expect. For the past couple years, the National Institutes of Health have been been cutting funding, both intramurally and extramurally. In fact, from what I understand, this is the first time that funds have actually been cut from extramural budgets prior to their expiration/date for renewal. This is making renewals for research funding through NIH even harder, as they are being awarded a smaller budget each year and they are forced to either fund for less, or fund fewer grants.

NIH isn’t the only organization that is impacted by this fund slashing. The National Science Foundation is also feeling the grip of this, as it seems they are being far more selective in their pre-doctoral awards. I was encouraged to apply for this award when I joined the biochemistry department, as were the other new students to the department. Unfortunately, not a single one of us was awarded the grant, nor even an honorable mention. Granted, I don’t think mine was outstanding, but I felt that at least one of our class would’ve had the material to get at least an honorable mention. After looking at previous years’ awards and that year’s awards, it became apparent that the predominant award winners were in mostly engineering and chemistry related fields. Combine that with the fact that my “critiques” were asking for things that I simply could not fit into the application (we’re only allowed two pages for each portion of the research proposal, I wrote nearly ten pages for my departmental research proposal), it makes me wonder if I wasn’t writing over the application, and not for it. Irrespective of that, it seemed that certain sciences were favored more than the others. I’ll discuss that further in another post.

With all these pressures as a researcher these days, what is a prospective doctoral candidate to do? I heard that a doctoral candidate that I know may actually be opting to leave with just a Master’s instead. Frankly, in the interests of his own financial security, this isn’t a bad decision. With a MS degree, you’re not overly qualified to work a position like a research technician in a lab, and you’re not so inexperienced that you’d be stuck with trivial and repetitious tasks. That, and you’re less dependent upon competitive funding; it’s no longer your responsibility, as you simply find a job with a primary investigator who does have funding (as opposed to being the one who has to hunt and apply for the funding). Looking at how many people are graduating with doctoral degrees compared to the past, and the large deficit in government funding, there’s a large push towards the stress of industrial doctoral positions. Sure, they pay well and are usually bleeding edge, but with that comes the stress of keeping up with that edge and driving results and deadlines.

Hearing that college is the new high school for the job market isn’t exactly reassuring. It’s bad enough the doctoral degrees are getting devalued through other means, and not just through dilution effects. Is it really worth the money to work for these degrees now, or should we just hand over our loan money to the creditors directly?